And now we are 7

My horn teacher and I always talk about how old I am in horn years. We don’t count the 3 years I ‘played’ in high school and the 1st year of college. At the time I thought I knew how to play. Ha ha ha ha. No way. Junior year of high school I was given a horn and asked to give it a try. I was a cellist. Really. A pretty decent cellist for a high school student. I was in the prep orchestra at the Manhattan School of Music. Sometimes I wonder why I made the change and I don’t really have an answer. My mother liked the band director. Maybe that’s why. I love the sound of the cello and I love the sound of the horn. Beyond that they don’t really have much in common. I didn’t just stop playing the cello but over time it took a back seat to the horn.

I wasn’t given any lessons. Basically – ‘Here’s a horn. Here’s a book. Be in band with your horn at 8:30 am next Monday.’ I was already in band playing, of all things, the tymps and the glockenspiel. Those of you who know me go ahead, just keep on laughing. Either I have gotten a lot worse with rhythm since then or they were really desperate for a tymp player. Ok back to the horn. If you had asked me back in 1971 if I thought I was a good horn player I would have said yes. Now I know better. I didn’t have a clue.

So the new beginning of horn playing started in the spring of 2009. Though I think the word ‘playing’ is a bit of an exaggeration. I could make sounds and sometimes put the sounds together into something resembling a phrase. By the fall of 2010 I could play things that were recognizable tunes. Lots and lots of missed notes and chipped notes. I started school going for an associates degree in music. I was thrown into music that was really too hard for me but required. Somehow I managed to get thru it. I got lots and lots of encouragement from my teacher thank heavens. I’ve written a lot in this blog about my startup and the early years of school. After that not so much because change happened much more slowly.

So after 7 years, what’s different? Tons. For one thing, I play better. A lot better. I don’t play the wrong note that often. I’m much less likely to chip or clam a note. My slurs are getting cleaner and cleaner. Why? I am doing better using air. I’ve written about me and air more than a few times in this blog. Each time I thought I’d figured it out. But no, I hadn’t. Every 6 months or so I get another insight about what I need to do. I’m at the point now that I’m pretty sure I understand what I should do but doing it isn’t a done deal. I can hear the difference immediately so now it’s all about execution.

What else has changed? I’ve learned how to practice properly. I used to start at the top of the page and finish at the bottom. Now I zero in on the places that need the work. I rarely practice a piece from start to finish. I don’t accept what I don’t like. I work and work on it even if it’s just a couple of notes. I slow it down until I can play it right. I use the metronome. Always. Always. I can’t imagine practicing without it but my early blogs will tell a very different story. Performing is getting less scary. I performed Mozart 3 with my community band last December. I’ve listened to the recording and it’s actually pretty decent. I could never have done that the year before. I’m playing 2 movements of the Hindemith Horn Sonata in a few weeks and it’s gonna be great. I can’t wait till I’m 8.

The New Normal ???

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to change my expectations of how I play and how I will perform. I’ve had many teachers tell me ‘you’re better than you think you are’ and my instant reaction has always been no I’m not. Well, I’m starting to rethink that. Since last June I’ve had some performance successes that are making me realize that I have really improved but I’ve also had some hiccups along the way. So is there a way to reset one’s personal expectations and does using the thought process of ‘the new normal’ help in any way?

The new normal was a way to describe the economic downturn back in 2008. Most people had to reset their expectations, particularly their financial expectations, and do with less. But is there any reason to associate the new normal only with downturns? It seems that the term could equally apply to upturns though it’s not typically used that way.

So back to horn playing. How one internalizes how they play is completely subjective. It’s not like baseball where you have a batting average that tells you and everyone else exactly how good you are. You know how you are doing over time and how you did in any game.  We don’t have a batting average – 30 misses out of 100 notes equals what really? One flubbed note in a long solo equals what? Our heads are our own worst enemy.

Back to me. I had three performance successes – where I felt I played well – recently and I realized that I can change my mindset from my old normal – ‘I always screw up performances’ – to my new normal – ‘I play well in performances.’ Since how you think is usually how you do it’s way better to go into a performance assuming you will do well.

Now for the hiccups. I took a two week vacation in September and I didn’t bring my horn. Before that I hadn’t missed more than three days in a row.  When I resumed practicing I played badly for several weeks and I was really unhappy and frustrated. I would have had a better mindset if I just reset my expectations to my new normal – not playing as well as I had before I went on vacation. It is what it is and it’s better just to accept it.

Then when I finally got back to where I was before vacation I had surgery on my right hand and had a monster bandage that filled up my entire bell. I really couldn’t play. I was flipping off notes all the time and my sound was awful. Once I got the bandage off and a cast on my playing improved ever so slightly. I really had a new normal that I had to accept. The alternative was a whole lot of negative thinking with a trip down the rabbit hole.

I don’t think resetting one’s expectations is appropriate for changes over short time frames. For example if you think you play badly one day or one week. But if there is a change that will be more long term, negative or positive, maybe it makes sense to put a label on it. Is it your new normal? Say yes and you’ll be happier for it.

Hand surgery

I’d been putting off fixing a painful problem with my right thumb for years but since I’m not in school anymore I decided that now was the time for the surgery. My other reason for choosing the end of November for the surgery was to make sure I was healed by the time warmer weather was back.

I had the surgery on November 21st and came home with a huge bandage and a huge amount of pain. Clearly there was not going to be any horn playing happening for several days at best. Once I got off the really good drugs I decided to give it a try and I discovered that I couldn’t play anything. For one thing my bandaged right hand didn’t fit in the bell so I tried various places on the edge of the bell. Then, no matter where I put my hand, I couldn’t hold any note steady above third space C. I’d start a note and it would wobble all over the place. After about 20 minutes I gave up.

The next day I tried again with pretty much the same results. Now I was getting worried. I had some rehearsal and performance commitments coming up not that far away and I hadn’t expected to have a problem playing. After a few more days of struggling I found a place to put my right hand that seemed to clear up the wobbly note problem and I managed to get thru a rehearsal a few days later reasonably okay.

On December 3rd my doctor removed the bandage and put on a cast. Phew. The cast was smaller and a lot easier to deal with. Little things like screwing my bell on and off the horn became possible with the cast. Again it took me a few days to overcome the wobbly note issue. Now I had to find the best place for my right hand with the cast instead of the bandage. This was a little easier than with the bandage but I never really found the perfect spot. I was still having issues with high notes. I don’t know the physics behind how air moves through the horn and bounces off the right hand but it seemed to me that the cast changed the air flow enough to give me problems both with steady notes and pitch.

Last week, on January 5th, I got the cast replaced with a removable splint. Now I could take it off for showers (yay) and horn playing. Within about 20 minutes my playing was back to normal. What a relief. A couple of days later I started my morning practice routine and I was playing terribly and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. After about 45 really frustrating minutes I looked at my right hand and I had the splint on. I took it off and everything was okay again. Some people have suggested that the changes in my playing were just me playing badly and not from the bandage and then the cast, but I think the air flow changed and that’s why I struggled with wobbly high notes. Next week I won’t need the splint anymore and after some intense physical therapy over the next four weeks I’ll be healed and have a pain free right thumb.

Horns are not frisbees

The night of my senior recital was Thursday Dec. 12th. It was a very good day and a not so good day. My recital went well but when I was putting my Dieter Otto 14 month old horn away my case dropped my horn. Well it was my fault  – you can’t really blame an inanimate object for dropping a horn or can you? I put the horn in the case and closed the top but got distracted because people were talking to me after the recital. I picked up the ‘closed’ case and the horn flew half way across the room. I hadn’t zipped up the case even though I ‘always’ check it. I stood there in stunned silence and didn’t really react much. It was like, huh, what just happened?

At first look it didn’t seem to have much damage. The first valve was stuck but I didn’t see the less visible damage. I took the horn up to Siegfried’s Call where I bought it and Scott Bacon showed me all the rest of the damage. Not good. The ferrule was compressed and the valve cluster was pushed in. There’s more damage than just that but it seems that the ferrule is the worst of it. The entire horn has to be taken apart to fix it. Fortunately Scott was able to get the horn playable, though not how it usually plays, for me. The repair cost is pretty hefty but the good news is that I have an instrument insurance policy that is covering the entire repair. The best $71 dollars I ever spent.

My horn is at Scott’s shop now and the repair will take about a week and a half. I have a high quality loaner horn but it’s making me crazy. I can’t play it in tune, it feels like I’m playing thru cotton, and it’s doing a great job of reminding me why I love my own horn. I also own a 3/4 size double horn (every one who is asking why, that’s a very good question) and it is easier for me to play, most likely because I’m used to it, than this loaner except that it cramps my left hand up so badly that I can’t play it for more than 15 minutes.

So, is it the case’s fault? It’s true that I’m the one who didn’t zip up the case but the case has no straps to hold the horn. If it had straps I wouldn’t have closed the case without strapping the horn in first. Now the latest version of this case has straps. I’ve heard from a well-known pro that this has happened to ‘a lot’ more people than just me. I’ve ordered a new, very expensive, carbon fiber case that should make it very difficult, but probably not impossible, to have the horn fall out of the case. I can see myself forgetting to zip up my current case again. I knew that forgetting to zip it was a potential problem and yet I got distracted and forgot. The only good news is that my horn fell after my recital, not before it.

All sorts of stuff

Wow, I’m actually writing something in my blog. I have made it through school and now have a BS in Music with an emphasis in horn. I don’t have the actual piece of paper yet but that should show up in about a month. It took me 3 and a half years, yet the time has flown by. I am a better horn player but I still have so far to go. Sometimes it seems endless. I have mentioned numerous times in my blog that I’ve finally figured out how to use air. Well, 4 and a half years later, I finally understand what I should do but it isn’t a habit yet. When I use air correctly it makes a huge difference in how I play. I still have a lot of issues with articulation. When I think I am playing nice short notes my teacher says they sound legato. I used to have what I call ‘first note itis’ where I consistently missed the first note of a piece or phrase but that has gone away. Funny how you have to concentrate to play the horn.

My most recent ‘aha’ moment is that I’ve discovered that my mind wanders when I’m playing. I realized this a few weeks ago when I was practicing for my senior recital and I decided to write down what I was thinking. The list was huge. Everything from homework that’s due, to where to get dinner, to making an appointment to get my car serviced, to the ugly pink shorts the jogger running past my house was wearing. Somehow I’ve got to fix this. It’s better now that I’m aware of it, but it’s really got to go away entirely.

I’ve been through quite a bunch of horns since 2009. I started with a Yamaha, the one that was in the closet when I started playing again. Then a Hoyer, an Otto, a Conn 8D, a Schmid, and now an Otto 180K JN. Geesh. I adore the Otto and will probably play it forever. For anyone who thinks a different horn will make them a better player, forget it. Different horns will give you different sound, color, projection, maybe comfort but in my experience, if you can’t articulate (put in your particular poison here) decently on one horn you won’t articulate decently on another horn. I think a lot of amateurs, including me, turn to equipment to solve problems. New equipment, whether horns, mouthpieces, or some other gizmo, may seem great for a week or two but in the end you play the way you play. This is my experience. YMMV.

I’ve been going back and forth about continuing school for a Masters. In the middle of this last semester I was so overwhelmed with everything I had to finish that I decided not to continue. Now that I’m actually done, I’ve changed my mind. I realized that I just can’t give up school entirely and go back to playing 4th horn in two community bands. In school I’m playing all the time – chamber music, band, wind ensemble, orchestra, recitals, etc. – and I love it. I’ll be taking one class each semester and because I’m enrolled in school I get to play in all the ensembles for free. How perfect is that?

This is all for now but watch for more posts about some of the challenges I had in school, what it was like living in a dorm a couple of days a week, dealing with recitals, my dropped horn and a few toys that I actually have found useful.

Back to the gym

You might wonder what going to the gym has to do with horn playing but, at least in my case, a whole lot. I’ve struggled with keeping my weight in check most of my life. There was one year, 1980, when I was actually too skinny. That didn’t last long. The rest of the time I’ve had to work on keeping the excess weight off.

My most recent big weight loss began in the fall of 2005 when I retired from work. I had gained a ton (well not really a ton) of weight during my last year at work. I retired because I came down with fibromyalgia in 2004 and that stopped me from exercising so everything I ate just stuck on my body. I was probably eating poorly as well though if you asked me that I would deny that this was the case. I set out to get the weight off beginning in early 2006 and lost 85 pounds during 2006 – 2007. I did this by limiting calories, eating healthy food, and exercising every day.

When I started playing the horn again I was in great shape. I was riding my bicycle between 20 and 30 miles daily, weather permitting, or working out in my gym in my house and, for once in my life, reasonably happy with my weight. Fast forward to the fall of 2010 when I went back to school. I was at school all day, four days a week, and I started eating junk food lots of the time because that was what was easy to grab in between classes. I also got a lot less exercise. With classes during the day and homework at night I exercised less and less and by the spring of 2011 I had gained the ‘freshman 15.’

At this point my sloth-like behavior hadn’t hurt my horn playing. I played ‘off the leg’ and could easily play standing up for long lengths of time. During the summer of 2011 I tried to take off the 15 pounds but that didn’t happen. My plan was to take it off by exercising more but the summer on the east coast was extremely hot and I rarely got out to ride. I also didn’t go back to my healthy food diet. Once I started eating junk food it was very hard to stop eating junk food. I realize that the heat and junk food are merely excuses and I just didn’t have the necessary motivation to lose the weight.

During the fall of 2011 I started to see the impact that the lack of exercise and the weight gain had on me when playing the horn. Playing standing up got more and more difficult. But what really worried me was that I was running out of breath. I was working on Malcomb Arnold’s Fantasy for Horn for my December jury exam and I was getting completely exhausted trying to play it. I needed to take extended breaks at the end of every phrase. In fact, anything fast just wiped me out.

The weight gain continued to spiral out of control as I kept eating junk and I couldn’t exercise because I had knee surgery in October. I couldn’t play standing up for more than 10 minutes and by January 2012 I started playing with my horn resting on my leg again. I made this change for sound quality but quickly realized that it was less exhausting as well. Now playing standing up got even harder because the horn was heavier when I wasn’t resting it on my leg.

By March I had gained another 15 pounds and I finally got motivated to get the weight off. I realized that the impact the extra weight had on my horn playing was unacceptable, never mind all the clothes in my closet that didn’t fit. Between March and the middle of June I lost 15 pounds by following the Nutrisystem food plan but I still didn’t get back to exercising. Then I went on vacation and got shingles and gained back 3 pounds. Thank goodness it was only 3 pounds. At this point in time I’m still following Nutrisystem but I haven’t started exercising and I haven’t seen much positive effect yet on my horn playing. There are 6 weeks left before school starts. I’ve got the food under control but I have to start exercising. I don’t think I’m going to see a positive effect on playing my horn unless I exercise. My goal is to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and to lose a pound a week. I’d like to get back to where I was before I started school by my birthday in November.

Summer 2011

Like everyone else, I’m wondering what happened to the summer. Usually I remember what I didn’t manage to get done that I had hoped to – bicycling, exercise, piano, school review, etc., etc. – but I realized the other day that I did do a lot of horn stuff and that’s a really good thing. In addition to attending the BSO Academy that I posted about last June, I played in a trio at the 92nd Street Y in NYC, took numerous lessons, sometimes more than once a week, practiced at least 2 hours a day and attended Jeff Nelsen’s Fearless Camp again a few weeks ago. I also bought a 1969 N series Conn 8D a few weeks before the BSO Academy.

So to start, why did I buy a Conn horn or any horn for that matter? Back when I started going to school last September, I was getting a bit beat up about my bright sound and I began what has turned into a year long effort to warm up and darken my sound. A lot of this effort is working on air, support, vowel sounds, and opening up my throat. Some of it is trying other horns and mouthpieces, one of which was the Conn. It solved my bright sound problem and amidst my ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ get another horn agita, my teacher’s comment, “Just get the big assed American horn” sealed the deal.

I’ve posted about air numerous times, frequently saying that I think I’ve figured it out. Well I think each time I put together another piece of the puzzle but I’m still learning. Another comment from my teacher, “Just blow for heavens sake”, helped. The Conn, however, has helped me tremendously as did lessons from two of the pros at the BSO. The Conn just needs more air and support and it’s teaching me to use air correctly all the time. Taking lessons from different people helps because they’ll say something just slightly differently than my teacher and all of a sudden something clicks. When I got back from the BSO Academy I realized that I had made a solid leap in the right direction using air and my sound on my Otto horn has improved significantly.

I’d be very content with my Conn and my Otto except that the mild tendonitis that I’ve had in my left shoulder has turned into screaming, stabbing horrible pain to the point that holding either horn is extremely painful. Sometime last year I bought a hornstick to try to help with my shoulder but it is quite clumsy to use and it looks dorky besides. If it worked well I’d deal with looking dorky. I’ve tried playing on the leg but that really doesn’t relieve that much weight off my left shoulder. Then in early July I was playing duets with a good friend of mine and I tried his Schmid and it was like manna from heaven. Not only in weight but in sound as well. So I placed an order for a Schmid from Houghton Horns.

I don’t have the Schmid yet and when I was at Fearless Camp Jeff Nelson got in an Otto 201 that is lighter than my Otto 180K and of course, lighter than the Conn. I sound pretty good on it too but I wasn’t sure it was ‘the horn’ so I got a loaner Schmid from Houghton Horns and I’ve been testing both of them for the past week and a half. The Schmid is still lighter by 150 grams and the balance of weight favors my shoulder. The Otto feels lighter nearer the bell. Sound wise, they are similar when I play them and depending on which mouthpiece I use I can get either one of them to sound great. I’ve finally made a decision to go with the Schmid because of the weight. With both horns sounding great, weight is why I’m getting another horn. Now I have to decide if I want to wait for the lacquered Schmid I ordered or just get the unlacquered one I have on loan.

Back to air – my big challenge now is to remember to keep the air going all the time. I understand what I need to do finally. I have notes written all over my music about keeping up air support, blowing thru notes and taking big breaths. Now it needs to become a habit.

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t post that often anymore and some of it is because I’m really busy but it’s also because my horn playing doesn’t change rapidly any more. Changes come over months of work. In the beginning, change happened everyday. Joy, frustration, extreme frustration, endurance, no endurance, stiffness, air, no air, on and on. Now I just practice. I don’t think of days or hours in terms of good or bad. I do lots of work and I get slow acceptable progress. Yay. I’ll post when interesting horn things happen.